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Distinguishing Between State and Federal Charges in New Jersey

May 5, 2024

Federal Crime Defense Lawyer in Southern New Jersey

Whether you face state or federal charges in New Jersey, your life could radically change. Both can be serious, though federal charges are typically more severe. State charges more likely concern local safety laws and ordinances or protection of property and persons, like assault, burglary, shoplifting or domestic violence. Federal crimes involve crossing state lines, like mail or wire fraud, drug charges, and human trafficking, or national interests, such as racketeering, hate crimes, tax evasion, and federal gun crimes. However, several other significant differences exist between state and federal charges. Here, our seasoned criminal defense attorneys at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay explore the critical distinctions between federal crimes and state criminal charges in New Jersey and the implications if you have been charged with one type or both.

Our firm is equipped to tackle your defense in state or federal courts in New Jersey. In fact, one of our partners, William C. Fay, used to investigate and prosecute federal cases on behalf of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. He employs his unique insight into federal criminal cases, from investigation through plea negotiations, motions, and federal litigation at trial to deliver the optimal outcomes for the clients we represent in Burlington County, Camden County, and throughout Southern New Jersey. For a free consultation regarding your federal or state crime case, contact our office in Evesham Township at 609-850-8284.

Key Distinctions Between Federal and State Charges in NJ

Understanding that federal criminal charges differ significantly from state criminal charges can help you decide your next steps. Each of the major distinctions between being charged with a federal crime versus a state crime are delved into thoroughly below.

Jurisdictional Differences

The first difference is the jurisdiction. The courts in which you will appear to defend yourself are distinct. Depending on the nature of your offense, a disorderly persons offense or indictable crime, you may have a judge try your case in municipal court or a jury in superior court. Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has one superior court. However, your city may have its own municipal court, as there are 530 in the state. The municipal court that handles your case is closest to where the offense occurred. On the other hand, federal judges handle federal charges in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Camden in Camden County, Newark in Essex County, and Trenton in Mercer County house the three federal courthouses titled U.S. District Court. Your trial will be in the district where the crime occurred or the district designated by U.S. law according to the crime in cases of multi-state crimes.  

Procedural Distinctions

Also, the proceedings differ in state and federal criminal courts. In state court, the case often begins with an arraignment, where the defendant faces charges and enters a plea.  Federal court procedures start with a grand jury indictment or a criminal information filing. Both an indictment and criminal information are accusations of a criminal offense or offenses against a defendant. However, one is by the grand jury and the other is by a public office by the oath of their office. Both state superior and federal courts have pre-indictment procedures that may include a detention hearing or release after arrest. 

County Prosecutors vs. Assistant United States Attorneys

Another contrast between state and federal criminal matters is who prosecutes cases. The New Jersey County Prosecutors’ Offices house county prosecutors that the state’s Attorney General’s Office oversees. They represent the state in criminal matters. In federal cases, the Assistant United States Attorneys represent the U.S. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Department of Justice, oversees federal prosecutors. 

Governing Federal vs. State Laws

The law governing your offense differs in state and federal matters. If you are in municipal court, a police officer cited you for a traffic offense or municipal ordinance violation, or you were summoned to court by a complaint summons for a disorderly persons offense. In other words, you violated a traffic or other law codified as a disorderly persons offense or municipal ordinance violation. Superior court crimes are violations of New Jersey’s state annotated criminal statutes and may be graded as indictable crimes of the first, second, third, or fourth degree. In federal court, the government charges you with violations of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. However, some crimes are state or federal violations that prosecutors can try in either court system, depending on the law that applies to each crime element. 

Potential Punishments in State or Federal Court

The laws also determine the punishment and the sentences in state and federal courts differ significantly. State court sentences derive from a range of minimum or maximum prison terms and fines corresponding to the offense classification. For example, the maximum punishment for a disorderly persons offense is six months in jail and a $1,000.00 fine, whereas for a third degree crime, the maximum prison sentence is five years. Indictable crimes include first, second, third, and fourth-degree crimes, each with a distinct minimum and maximum sentence. In contrast, the federal courts rely on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for sentence ranges. They also sentence certain crimes by the statutory mandate of specific prison terms and fines in the U.S. Code’s Crimes and Criminal Procedures. 

It is crucial to remember that federal courts have different mandatory minimum sentencing, whereas New Jersey state courts have their own rules for mandatory minimum sentences that apply in specific circumstances or crimes. More severe crimes under NJ state criminal law fall under the No Early Release Act and the Graves Act, which call for mandatory minimum sentences. As such, federal prison sentences tend to be lengthier than state sentences. Notably, you could face federal and state charges under certain circumstances, with prison sentences that span many years, often decades. 

Why You Should Hire a New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Experienced in State and Federal Courts

In any case, it is imperative to consult a criminal defense attorney who knows federal law when facing federal charges. Considering the longer sentences and particular procedures in U.S. District Court, you need someone who knows what they are doing in the federal criminal system. Knowing the federal courts, prosecutors, procedures, and law is a major advantage over other lawyers who do not regularly practice in federal court. Specifically, federal criminal defense lawyers such as ours at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay have familiarity with the system and those who operate within it, which can be instrumental to the progress and outcome of your case.

Our New Jersey federal crime defense lawyers understand the federal agencies that investigate federal cases, which helps us to conduct our own investigations in search of evidence to challenge the government’s case, as well as to mitigate charges or penalties against you. With our unique insider’s knowledge of cases prosecuted by the NJ Attorney General Office, we will strategize a defense plan with you and counsel you throughout the process to ensure your full understanding of the charges and options. 

Ultimately, it is paramount to have someone to represent and support you during every phase of the proceedings, including pre-indictment proceedings, indictment, pre-trial hearings, negotiations, and trial in federal court. Since federal prosecutors operate differently than state prosecutors, you can count on our criminal defense team to be prepared, since we are highly familiar with the judges, prosecutors, and procedures unique to federal courts in New Jersey. 

Consult a Federal Crime Defense Lawyer in Southern New Jersey

If you face federal criminal charges after an arrest, seek legal counsel from an experienced federal criminal defense attorney at Proetta, Oliver, & Fay. We offer free consultations regarding state and federal criminal charges in New Jersey anytime, seven days a week. Do not hesitate to reach out to us online or by calling 609-850-8284 to speak with a lawyer.

Contact Us

Our phones are answered 24 hours a day. We are available weekdays during business hours. We also meet with clients on evenings and weekends by request. We have four office locations conveniently located in Jersey City, Edison, Middletown, Cranford, Burlington, and Hamilton. All major credit cards are accepted.

Burlington Office

525 Highway 73,
Suite 104, Marlton,
New Jersey 08053
Phone: 609-850-8284
By Appointment Only

Hamilton Office

100 Horizon Center
Boulevard, Hamilton,
New Jersey, 08691
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Point Pleasant Office

3828 River Road,
Suite A, Point Pleasant,
New Jersey 08742
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Middletown Office

180 Kings Highway,
Middletown Township,
New Jersey 07748
By Appointment Only